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The Southern Colonies

5d. Debtors in Georgia

Savannah, 1734
The city of Savannah, once a part of Oglethorpe's utopian design, makes its beginnings in 1734.

The development of Georgia was unlike all the other British colonies. First of all, it was the last to be created. Georgia was founded in 1733, 126 years after Jamestown was successfully planted. England and Europe as a whole were in the midst of an intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment. Enlightened thinkers championed the causes of liberty and progress. Many believed in the innate goodness of human beings. They asserted that even the worst elements of society might prosper if given the right set of circumstances.

James Oglethorpe was such a thinker. He and a group of charitable investors asked King George for permission to create a utopian experiment for English citizens imprisoned for debt. England's prison population could be decreased, and thousands of individuals could be given a new chance at life. With these lofty goals, Georgia was created.

King George was not terribly concerned with the plight of the English debtor. His advisers pointed out that such a colony in Georgia might provide defense for the South Carolina rice plantations from Spanish Florida. He gave his assent to a charter and Oglethorpe acted.


"...And this would turn out very well indeed in that it would encourage very many good families of average means to go to settle there as well as some very good workmen as carpenters, masons, tile makers, blacksmiths, farriers, locksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, vine growers, shepherds, laborers, and others who would be most useful there. Instead of this, the greatest part of those who have already gone there are nothing but miserable ones both as to their manners and as to their fortunes..."

– James Edward Oglethorpe, Original Papers, Feb. 11, 1737


Here, the settlers would have to conform to Oglethorpe's plan, in which there was no elected assembly. Three major laws governed the colony. The first dealt with the distribution of land. The second and third reflected Enlightened ideals. No slavery was permitted in Georgia, and the possession of alcohol was prohibited. Each debtor was to receive 50 acres of land to farm. This land could not be sold. Silkworms were transported from Europe with the hope of developing a silk industry in Georgia's mulberry trees.

Unfortunately, the plan itself was a miserable failure. Georgia residents complained that some citizens received fertile land while others were forced to work uncooperative soil. Since they could not buy or sell their land, they felt trapped. The mulberry tree plan failed, because the trees in Georgia were the wrong type for cultivating silk. The alcohol ban was openly flouted. Cries to permit slavery followed as the Georgians envied the success of their neighbors. Eventually many simply fled the colony for the Carolinas. King George revoked the charter in 1752 and Georgia became a royal colony. One of the world's best organized utopian experiments came to an abrupt end.

On the Web
Charter of Georgia: 1732
The rice- and tobacco-selling colonists of the Carolinas came under attack from the Indians and Spanish to the south. The British solution? Export a whole bunch of debtors to settle a buffer zone and call it Georgia! Read all about it and much more in Georgia's charter.
Images of Oglethorpe
Here's a great site for research. Not only will you find dozens of pictures of James Oglethorpe and related to the settlement of Georgia, there are also an essay on the colony's founder and a timeline of events. All from Armstrong Atlantic State University.
James Oglethorpe Tercentenary Home Page
A comprehensive site from the University of Georgia celebrating the tercentenary of James Oglethorpe's birth. This celebration was officially decreed by the Georgia State Legislature. The page is broken down into several chapters including "English roots of James Oglethorpe" and "Visit to Savannah" which was a city settled by Oglethorpe. Lots of pictures to be found throughout the site too!
Oglethorpe and the Georgia Indians
The gallery on this website contains 48 images related to native Americans in Georgia from the contact period up to the early 1900s. But don't miss the essay on Oglethorpe relations with the native Americans, with special reference to Tomochichi, a Creek leader.
The Fortresses of Savannah
The early Georgia settlements had to be fortified, and this excellent essay explains why. Click on the inline links for treats like images of the early forts and maps.
GEORGE the second, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, king, defender of the faith, and so forth. Read the Charter of Georgia, 1732, and so forth!
Learn More...
On the evening of October 3, a delegation of 57 Georgians, including Governor Zell Miller, boarded a flight Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta for a 4-day pilgrimage to England to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Georgia's founder James Edward Oglethorpe.
Learn More...
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